Abracadabra to Alchemy: 7000 Years of Magic

The New-York Historical Society’s fascinating Summer of Magic continues with Abracadabra to Alchemy by auction specialist and art history lecturer Gabriella Corey. “The magic we’ll be looking at is not the magic we associate with great pronouncements or entertainment.” In fact, the way our lecturer uses the term “magic” is different than common popular definitions.

We start in the Wonderwerk Cave, Kuruman Hills, South Africa (Wonderwerk means “miracle” in Afrikaans) and Lascaux Caves in Montignac, France, both archeological sites.  Middle and later Stone Age art depicts successful hunting. “The minute man prioritized survival, magic began….” Sympathetic rituals were built around preparation, luck, skill and outcome. It’s conjectured that art representing positive results may even have preceded a hunt as a way to encourage the fates.

Left: Ancient Roman Amulet; Right: 15th Century Grimoire

Greek, Roman, and Egyptian practices/beliefs seem to overlap. In Egypt, magic was mostly associated with the grave. “Inscriptions and coffins gave us a glimpse into the afterlife, sometimes leaving instructions for the dead.” Restrictions dictated not only who created spells but every aspect of the practice. Because literacy was reserved to the rich and powerful, reading these aloud was sometimes sufficient. Curses were also frequent and feared. The Egyptian Book of The Dead was more personalized than is thought by contemporary culture. What we read are the standardized sections.

Because Egyptian hieroglyphics were so difficult to translate, the first Grimoires, or books of spells, were often in Greek or Roman/Italian. The recently decoded Voynich Grimoire was used for women’s reproductive health. It had biological, herbal, and alchemical sections.

Chloris gave Hera a magical herb which allowed her to become pregnant without her husband, Zeus.

Amulets were used in all three early cultures, especially for protection. Many of these were worn as contact with flesh was thought to ignite powers. Early wands were ceremonially utilized to scare away evil. An example might be waving one over a pregnant woman.

Early Roman figure Pliny the Elder (scholar who wrote on subjects including science and history) was skeptical about the efficacy of magic. Practicing might mean execution. Still, charioteers paid for spells against their competitors and victories attributed to magic cheating. Binding charms were used to get sex, money, and power. In Rome, incantation was mainly used for protection.

Left: Page from alchemic treatise of Ramon Llull, 16th century. Right: From The Black Pullet Grimoire that proposes to teach the science of magical talismans and rings.

Alchemy is often defined as “the search for a quantifiable spiritual essence= the soul…” As gold was the most valuable substance on earth, its manifestation and transmutation were believed to be the probable source of eternal life. “In The Book of Revelations, everyone was bedecked in gold.” The crossover between greed and spiritualism is familiar. Pope John XXII apparently outlawed the practice less because man was usurping the power of God than because the gold market grew too inflated.

Left: Apparatus-Ambix, cucurbit and retort of Zosimos, from Marcelin Berthelot, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs Right: The traditional Abracadabra invocation

Corey’s talk was knowledgeable, but extremely dense and rather too academic for lay people. Intriguing questions were nonetheless raised encouraging attendees to do a bit of further research into the earliest forms of what we now call Magic.

Gabriella Corey

All quotes are Gabriella Corey

All Photos are Public Domain from Wikipedia and The New York Public Library

Gabriella Corey photo courtesy of the speaker

The Summer of Magic series is a wonderful way for laypeople to explore the subject in an entertaining fashion.

Previous Summer of Magic articles by Alix:
David Copperfield’s iconic collection
The Witch of Lime Street        
Women in Magic

For Summer of Magic events at The New-York Historical Society  click here
The New-York Historical Society   170 Central Park West at 77th Street

About Alix Cohen (956 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.